MPoaF: Making a Book in the 21st Century

Well, one way of making a book anyway. The Espresso Book Machine is already installed here and there, including a few bookshops around the world, I think. Is this a possible saviour for a handful of the doomed bookstores I was talking about last week? I’m a bit dubious, but you can see why they’d want to give it a try. Any straw you can get hold of probably looks appealing when you’re sinking fast. It is quite clever, I suppose, and it’s fun to watch a book coming into existence like that.

I’m not sure it really offers much defence against the e-book advance, though. Much as I hate to dwell on the gloomier aspects of this revolution, it’s stayed on my mind this last week, so a couple of further hints at what the future holds:

As pointed out by Simon in the comments on the last post, Waterstone’s, the UK’s last big chain of dedicated bookstores is shuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic. They plan to turn their backs (partially) on the dreaded celebrity biography and give individual store managers more control over what books their shops stock and promote. It’s an idea I can get behind, but will it stave off the coming storm? Somehow I doubt it. Might prolong the life of some of their stores, but can’t see it saving large numbers of them in the long run.

20% of digital book buyers apparently stop buying print copies entirely. Can’t make up my mind whether that’s a higher or lower percentage than I would have expected. One thing’s for sure, though – it’s a chunky enough number (and one I’d imagine is only going to rise) to put a big ugly question mark over the viability of all bricks and mortar bookshops once the digital habit has spread a bit further through the reading population.

Lots of digital books are illegally downloaded. A staggeringly unexpected discovery, I’m sure you’ll agree. Reading about it a bit more widely, it’s not obvious the study’s findings are exactly robust, since there’s a lot of extrapolation and sampling involved, but maybe I should just be pleased to see that fiction titles are actually amongst the least affected. (But in this case ‘least affected’ still means thousands and thousands of copies). Again, one thing’s for sure: the numbers will only rise once on-screen reading of books becomes a more widespread and deeply entrenched norm. What effect it’ll have on the financial stability of the whole writing business remains to be seen, and I’m instinctively doubtful of anyone who claims to know.

And as for publishers … well, all I can say is I’m glad it’s not my job to spend all day trying to figure out where all this is heading, and whether I’ll still have gainful employment when it gets there … I’d be in a perpetual cold sweat.

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11 comments

  1. Mihai (Dark Wolf)’s avatar

    It is a sad situation. I absolutely love bookstores, becasure they gave me an unique feeling. Walking through the book shelves, picking the books up, looking their covers, titles, back cover and so on. Or those lovely coffee shops with books, sitting with a book while enjoying a great coffee cup, or the other way around.
    Maybe someday in the future they'll put a chip inside our head and we will store books there. Of course just those carefully selected by governments. Or maybe I just imagine things…

  2. MConrad’s avatar

    The publishing side of the coin is really an interesting one to me. Illegal downloading of digital books is a threat, just as it has been a problem for music. The risk of sharing is always going to be there but I believe if you offer a quality product at a fair price with a safe and convenient delivery system that the risks can be minimized. I know I would much rather pay $10 to download an album from Amazon than skulk around in some shady corner of the internet looking for a free copy and exposing my PC to God-knows-what. The same goes for books.

    I'm not publishing guru, but the potential margins in play on digital copies are pretty staggering. Take out all the costs of printing, paper, distribution and materials! Even offering ebooks at deep discounts over their paper counterparts and the margins are still there.

    I have loved bookstores too, but it's a brave new world out there and you can't be afraid to change with it. Something will come along to fill the void.

  3. Brian Ruckley’s avatar

    Yeah, although illegal downloading's bound to be a problem of some sort in the brave new world of digital books, I'm not sure it'll be the biggest one facing either authors or publishers if they handle things sensibly.

    Costs and margins, though … that's a whole can of worms. Truth is, printing, paper and distribution are not as big a component of the cost of getting a book into the hands of a reader as most people imagine. Some folks run some numbers here and here. The exact figures are open to debate, but the general principle that e-books are by no means a get-rich-quick proposition for publishers is pretty definite, I think.

    But the whole thing's enormously complicated and full of ifs and buts. For example, what would the numbers in those two linked posts look like if publishers cut out the middleman and sold e-books direct to punters through their own websites, or some co-owned portal? There are all sorts of problems with that approach too (by no means the least perhaps being the fearful and fell enmity of every surviving bookseller everywhere, online and offline alike), but it illustrates the fact that everything's in flux at the moment and no one knows what the landscape's going to look like, or who'll still be standing, once things settle down. If they ever do.

  4. Brian Ruckley’s avatar

    But, MConrad, I should add, I broadly agree with the sentiment of your comment: it'll probably all come out OK in the end. Radically different, perhaps, but generally OK.

  5. MConrad’s avatar

    Those are interesting articles but I guess my one major gripe would be the assertion that pre producttion costs don't change much from print to digital editing. I'm not an author or a publisher, so I'm sure others are more qualified than me to forecast costs. However it seems intuitive to me that in a print world, it's vitally important to have all your ducks in a row before you go to print. I mean, you can't just recall 1000000 copies of a book because someone forgot to spell check it.

    On the other hand, digital books can become much more of a living document I think. Do three departments need to look at an ecopy before it gets launched? When at the push of a button you can release "My Novel" 2.0 which corrects the spelling error on page 285?

    Costs almost HAVE to go down. And also, I think 9.99 is an extremely fair price for an ebook. Certainly compared to hardcover prices. I believe that internet retailers could sell books that price all day long.

    I've also wondered if maybe there wouldn't come a day when publishers do sell direct to consumers. I certainly think that genre publishers have a real opportunity to create and expand a "BRAND" which allows them to deal directly with consumers, bypassing retail outlets altogether. And I think that's why we're seeing Amazon and Barnes and Noble jump feet-first into the ereader device market. Kindle is a radical departure from Amazon's business model but if Amazon can get enough of them into the market place (like apple with their ipods) then publishers will have to continue to work with Amazon to distribute their books.

  6. Philip Palmer’s avatar

    The consolation for me is that publishers are much more savvy about digital technology than the music biz ever was – I think the execs there were drunk and stoned and just fell of a cliff.

    I still think nothing can beat the experience of a book; just as nothing can beat the experience of going to see a movie. And movies are BOOMING. But there they've got 3D which can't be replicated on pirate copies.

    I think it's hard for non fiction writers; since becoming a publisher author I no longer buy second hand novels (well, it's a form of legal piracy really!) but I always buy second hand non fiction books. Because, well, I'm cheap.

    But let's hope books continue to flourish; sex and books have been around for a long time, and I hope neither of them date.

  7. Brian Ruckley’s avatar

    Phil: I hope your faith in the (relative) wisdom of the mighty publishers is justified – it's certainly difficult to imagine them making the same mistakes as the music bosses did.

    What I think's interesting about this mass shift to digital in all entertainment media, is that it's going ahead even though I'm not convinced that any of the entertainment industries have truly figured out a financial model that will sustain their industry in the new environment while maintaining the scale, quality and diversity that existed in it before the switch to digital. I think it's at least possible – I'm not sure I'd go as far as saying 'probable' just yet -that no amount of wisdom and foresight will save publishers (or some authors, for that matter) because the basic economics of the business are about to become much more hostile to a significant proportion of the players.

    Charlie Stross has posted about his fear/expectation that the market for paperback books is going to be all but destroyed within the next ten years or so, and that consumers are not going to accept a pricing structure for e-books that would be sufficient to actually pay authors the current going rate for their work (which even now isn't exactly generous). Things may or may not play out precisely as he suggests, but I've thought for a while now that his basic proposition – that life could be about to get financially much, much harder for writers and publishers alike – is entirely plausible.

    Next decade or two are going to be interesting to say the least.

  8. Simon’s avatar

    I am 23 and despite not being alive in the 70's I seem to have found myself a member of a very small group of people who loves progressive music above all other genres. The genre is still very much alive and kicking and there are a few bands knocking about that can sell out big venues.However, the thing about Prog is that the vast majority of bands have never sold a lot of CDs because they are an extremely small niche market. One may suppose then that the rise of illegal downloads has killed off this small genre, and yet still the bands keep going producing great music and touring the world. Some are big enough to absorb a few hundreds of thousands of illegal downloads, much as today’s popular "top40" bands still end up as millionaires in the face of the illegal download. The smaller bands that next to no-one has ever heard of carry on much as they always did – creating music, remaining in obscurity and making a small amount of money from it all.
    Now, many bands have realised that actually they don’t need the “Industry”. The rise of the internet, while destroying the old way of publicising music – signing a deal with a record company, who give you publicity, distribution etc. in exchange for x% of your takings – has opened up the new world of DIY music. Some bands simply give their music away for free, some give it away for free and ask for a donation if you are able to, some sell their own music themselves so that all the money from the sales comes back to them and not into the pockets of the record companies. Many bands out there are doing good business this way, some bands are making a tidy profit but continue with their day jobs as they always did and always have done throughout history. The point is, that while it is scary that new technologies are radically changing the way media is released to the public, the same technologies are putting more power into the hands of the creator of the media (with the probably exception of Film which is way too big and expensive for this kind of self production and distribution to work). It may be that authors have to follow the example of many bands and do it alone, writing their stories simply for the joy of writing a story and then releasing over the internet for people to access. With e-readers, this would mean that the author only needs to upload his book onto a website and the owner of the ereader can download it, so publishing need not be considered. As with the musicians, the author could charge for the download, or give it away free and hope for some fiscal contributions from the readers. I direct you to a Progressive music blog I follow where some members of little known bands have written their thoughts on this: http://progrockin.blogspot.com.....bruce.html (see questions 5 to 11) http://progrockin.blogspot.com.....ready.html and http://progrockin.blogspot.com.....art-2.html . I believe that the book industry can learn a lot from the pioneers of the music industry who have turned their backs on the whole thing and tried out their own business models – many musicians actually like illegal downloads as it gives them so much more exposure.

    sorry for the long comment!

  9. Brian Ruckley’s avatar

    Simon: Wow, a 23 yr old prog rock fan, huh? That must indeed make you a member of a fairly exclusive club …

    I hear what you're saying about the opportunities e-publishing might offer writers, and agree that the scenario you outline is a possible outcome of where we're heading. Personally, I remain to be convinced that it would be a good thing for either writers or readers.

    My concerns are too numerous and varied to get into here (maybe another blog post sometime?), and undoubtedly coloured by my personal position and perspective so may well not be shared by others.

    I will say this, which applies only to me and is not necessarily a guide to how other writers would feel: however much I love writing, given where I am in my life, if I could no longer reasonably expect to earn non-trivial amounts of money from novels, I might well stop writing novel-length fiction. Right now, and for the foreseeable future, I can't really justify the time and effort involved in producing a novel to what I personally consider an acceptable standard if there's not going to be at least the reasonable hope of a payday at the end of it that makes a material contribution to meeting my living expenses.

    I wouldn't stop writing fiction, but I'd probably be looking for other kinds of writing that could earn me some money with a more reasonable balance between time and effort invested and remuneration (which might be radio, tv, comics, whatever).

    To be sure, now and for some time to come, the opportunities still exist that make me believe writing novels is an entirely sensible thing for any author in search of an audience and a career to do. If we enter a world dominated by esentially self-published e-books, that might not be the case.

  10. MConrad’s avatar

    It looks as though this is becoming the debate du jour on many author's blogs these days.

    Amazon sure kicked up a dust storm. That $9.99 price cap on ebooks is going to be tough for them to ram through. I don't think they've got enough Kindles on the market to pull it off, but we'll see.

    This is yet another reason why I chose the Sony though. With the Kindle's proprietary format, you're basically chained to AMAZON for content and taking MacMillan/TOR out of the equation really cuts a large swath of what I like to read out of the equation.

  11. Brian Ruckley’s avatar

    Yep, it's chaos out there. The pricing of e-books is maybe the biggest ticking bomb currently lodged in the breast of the publishing industry.

    In recent years, Amazon have shown on several occasions that 'bull in a china shop' is about the most charitable description applicable to them, but they seem to have already more or less lost this particular argument (more like a full on fistfight than an argument, really). But the downward pressure on e-book pricing isn't going to go away.

    Remains to be seen how it all plays out in the medium term, but I still think there's at least a possibility of near-irreparable damage being done to not only publishing companies but (rather more importantly, as I'm bound to think) the chances of a non-trivial proportion of writers making even a modest living from their output.

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